"You have to twist yourself into a pretzel on an hourly basis." So says Taylor Swift in the thought-provoking but ultimately unsatisfying documentary Miss Americana, which debuted on opening night of the Sundance Film Festival prior to its wide release Friday, Jan. 31 on Netflix.
Swift is speaking about the central conundrum that is her life. Every step she takes in life is intensely scrutinized by fans and haters. If she stays quiet on a subject, she is accused of being complicit. If she speaks against it, she is accused of being disingenuous. Added to this is the difficulty faced by any female celebrity. She is beautiful and glamorous, but also dares to be talented enough to write her own songs and to sculpt her own career. Miss Americana doesn't ask you to feel sorry for Taylor per se, but it wants you to recognize that all of her wealth, fame, and influence do not come easy.
With this film, directed by Lana Wilson, Swift opens up about what it means to live her life. It's a non-stop rush of private planes, packed stadiums, long hours in the studio, and meetings with her management team. She is very aware of how she is perceived, and while she may say it doesn't get to her, it absolutely does. In more raw moments she admits that she got into the entertainment business because she is insecure and needs the approbation of strangers. She is smart enough to realize this is perhaps a foolish high to chase, especially as she deals with numerous stalkers, but she can't not do it. For starters, she's really good at it. The smooth way she handles mega-fans in Tokyo during a meet-and-greet is some sort of otherworldly gift. Yet every setback, like her Reputation album getting no major Grammy nominations, motivates her to work even harder, to push for that brass ring. (Taylor really loves awards.)
She is also hesitant to look at photos of herself, as this is something of a mine field of triggers for her eating disorder. In a somewhat surprising and honest confession, she is clearly aware that starving herself is dangerous -- and a product Hollywood's ridiculous beauty standards for women -- but is honest enough to admit she can fall back on old habits at any minute.
What's unfortunate is that this revelation feels weirdly staged. This is, as Miss Americana itself points out, an accusation that is hurled at Swift all the time, and it drives you crazy. I feel guilty even bringing it up. She does, after all, come across as extremely nice. She has adorable cats and the old video footage of her as a precocious tyke is terrific. And yet so much of this film, whether it is edited archival material, live footage or the fly-on-the-wall stuff, feels heavily stage-managed. This is less of a window into Taylor Swift's life than a rich, thorough advertisement for Taylor Swift's brand, even if, paradoxically, her brand right now is being genuine.
As such, the few instances that do capture life on-the-fly really pop. Best is a scene in which Taylor, somewhat radicalized after her $1 lawsuit against a Denver DJ who grabbed her rear-end, decides she is going to back a Democratic candidate for Senate in her home state of Tennessee. Her father (and other men in her organization) are against it. "We've never talked about politics and religion," they say about a woman who became a huge star at the age of 16. "Would Bob Hope do this?" her father asks in a political Instagram post. "Would Bing Crosby?" Swift's mother, coming to her daughter's side, retorts "Bob Hope?!?!!?" with an "are you nuts?" inflection. It is a wonderfully human moment of interpersonal drama.
Drama is what's ultimately missing from the rest of the movie, unless you count rehashing Kanye West's rude interruption of her acceptance of an MTV Video Music Award. On the one hand, yes, West is, in the words of President Obama, a "jackass." On the other, Swift and director Lana Wilson frame this incident as some sort irrevocable war wound. It's laughable.
Far more interesting are scenes of Taylor in the studio, dreaming up melodic lines and lyrics to the songs off her Lover album. It's quite thrilling to see her outside of her red carpet clothing, working hard in little makeup, pink sweatpants with hearts on them, sneakers, and her hair in a simple ponytail, all the while crafting a pop product that will earn millions of dollars.
Once Taylor "goes political" the film leans hard into her newfound activism. Suddenly she is surrounded by people of color and members of the LGBT community. They aren't in her home or on her plane, but they are cheering for her as she picks up, you guessed it, more awards.
It may not pass the sniff test, but there's no denying that Swift is a sharp woman who speaks eloquently and chooses the right words. When the final act reaches a crescendo of talking points, everything she says about the double-standards placed on women in our society is incisive and insightful. It's almost like she's running for office. Maybe someday soon her political Instagram posts will be for her own campaign? Wildest dreams, indeed.
TV Guide Rating: 3/5
Taylor Swift: Miss Americana premieres Friday, Jan. 31 on Netflix.